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demand thus much of Sedgwick, is to hold him to a defence, which, in this campaign, no other officer of the Army of the Potomac was able to make.
Not but what, under equally pressing conditions, other generals have, or himself, if he had not received instructions to withdraw, might have, accomplished so much. But if we assume, that having an eye to the numbers and losses of his corps, and to his instructions, as well as to the character and strength of the enemy opposed to him, Sedgwick was bound to dispute further the possession of Banks's Ford, in order to lend a questionable aid to Hooker, how lamentable will appear by comparison the conduct of the other corps of the Army of the Potomac, under the general commanding, bottled up behind their defences at Chancellorsville !
HOOKER'S FURTHER PLANS.
OOKER states: “Gen. Warren represented to me
that Gen. Sedgwick had said he could do no more; then it was I wanted him to take some position, and hold it, that I might turn the enemy in my immediate front. I proposed to leave troops enough where I was, to occupy the enemy there, and throw the rest of my force down the river, and re-enforce Sedgwick; then the whole of Lee's army, except that which had been left in front of Sedgwick, would be thrown off the road to Richmond, and my army would be on it.
“ As soon as I heard that Gen. Sedgwick had re-crossed the river, seeing no object in maintaining my position where I was, and believing it would be more to my advantage to hazard an engagement with the enemy at Franklin's Crossing, where I had elbow-room, than where I was, the army on the right was directed to re-cross the river, and did so on the night between the 5th and 6th of May."
Now, the Franklin's Crossing plan, or its equivalent, had been tried by Burnside, in December, with a loss of twelve thousand men; and it had been fully canvassed and condemned as impracticable, before beginning the Chancellorsville maneuvre. To resuscitate it can therefore serve no purpose but as an idle excuse. And the argument of elbow-room, if made, is the one Hooker should have used against withdrawing from the open country he had reached, to the Wilderness, on Friday, May 1.
Being resolved on re-crossing the river on the night between the 4th and 5th, I called the corps commanders together, not as a council of war, but to ascertain how they felt in regard to making what I considered a desperate move against the enemy in our front.” Be it remembered that the “desperate move was one of eighty thousand men, with twenty thousand more (Sedgwick) close at hand as a reserve, against at the outside forty-five thousand men, if Early should be ordered up to re-enforce Lee. And Hooker knew the force of Lee, or had as good authority for knowing it as he had for most of the facts he assumed, in condemning Sedgwick. Moreover, from the statements of prisoners we had taken, very nearly an exact estimate could be made of the then numbers of the Army of Northern Virginia.
All the corps commanders were present at this conference, except Slocum, who afterwards came in. All were in favor of an advance, except Sickles; while Couch wavered, inclining towards the opinion that an advance could be made to advantage. Hancock, (testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War,) says: “I understood from him ” (Couch) “always that he was in favor of fighting then.” Hooker claims Couch to have been for retreat; but the testimony of the generals present, as far as available, goes to show the council to have been substantially as will now be narrated.
Hooker retired for a while, to allow free expression of opinion; and, with one exception, all present manifested a desire for another attack, in full force, - Howard, Meade, and Reynolds being especially urgent to this purpose. The one dissentient voice was Sickles; and he expressed himself, confessedly, more from a political than a strategic standpoint. He allowed the military reasons to be sound for an advance, and modestly refrained from putting his opinion against that of men trained to the profession of arms; though all allowed his right to a valid judgment. But he claimed, with some reason, that the political horizon was dark; that success by the Army of the Potomac was secondary to the avoidance of disaster. If, he alleged, this army should be destroyed, it would be the last one the country would raise. Washington might be captured; and the effect of this loss upon the country, and upon Europe, was to be greatly dreaded. The enemies of the administration were strong, and daily gaining ground. It was necessary that the Army of the Potomac should not run the risk of destruction. It was the last hold of the Republican party in Virginia. Better re-cross and recuperate, and then attempt another campaign, than run any serious risk now. These grounds largely influenced him in agreeing with the general-in-chief's determination to retire across the river. But there were other reasons, which Sickles states in his testimony. The rations with which the men had started had given out, and there had been no considerable issue since. Singularly enough, too, (for Hooker was, as a rule, unusually careful in such matters,) there had been no provision made for supplying the troops against a possible advance; and yet, from Sunday noon till Tuesday night, we had lain still behind our intrenchments, with communications open, and with all facilities at hand to prepare for a ten-days' absence from our base. This circumstance wears the look of almost a predetermination to accept defeat.
Now, at the last moment, difficulties began to arise in bringing over supplies. The river had rapidly risen from the effects of the storm. Parts of the bridges had been carried away by the torrent. The ends of the others were under water, and their entire structure was liable at any moment to give way. It was not certain that Lee, fully aware of these circumstances, would, for the moment, accept battle, as he might judge it better to lure the Army of the Potomac away from the possibility of victualling. Perhaps Sedgwick would be unable to cross again so as to join the right wing. The Eleventh Corps might not be in condition to count on for heavy service. The Richmond papers, received almost daily through channels more or less irregular, showed that communications were still open, and that the operations of the Cavalry Corps had not succeeded in interrupting them in any serious manner. On the coming Sunday, the time of service of thirty-eight regiments was up. Many of these conditions could have been eliminated from the problem, if measures had been seasonably taken; but they now became critical elements in the decision to be made. And Hooker, despite his well-earned reputation as a fighting man, was unable to arrive at any other than the conclusion which Falstaff so cautiously enunciated, from beneath his shield, at the battle of Shrewsbury, that “the better part of valor is discretion."